#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
academic reorganization · academic work · solidarity

Reflections On Talking #CAF Crisis to Mainstream Media

In the last few weeks there has been a shift in the attention paid to Contract Academic Faculty. It hasn’t been a sea change per se, but with #NAWD and the on going strikes at the University of Toronto and York University the mainstream media has been paying some attention to what we who work in the academy have known for some time: things need to change.

But as a teacher who is trained in literature and language I rankle at my own use of the nebulous term “things.” What, exactly, are those “things” that need changing? As I tell my students over and again defining your terms is crucial because it allows you to situate yourself. You know not only precisely what you’re talking about, you also know the history and context of the term you’re using. So what are we talking about when we say “things” need to change?

This isn’t just a navel gazing question. When I was interviewed by Simona Chiose of the Globe & Mail two weeks I found myself faced with this very question. The article was mostly about the strikes happening in Toronto. Chiose was working to situate the immediacy of the strikes, which, let’s not forget, are happening at two very different institutions, in the larger question of what needs fixing in post-secondary education in Canada? A tough task indeed, especially when writing for that necessary readership of people who care, but, as most work outside academia, need to be told exactly why they must care and why their care needs to be actioned. Put differently, this was one of the first Canadian mass media pieces on the crisis in higher education that attempted to spell out some of the material issues facing workers and students.

When  Chiose called me to ask if I would participate in an interview I was happy to do so. I was prepared to talk about my past and on going experience as a CAF and, because I have also had experience sitting on a Faculty-wide Council of Chairs, working with academic development committees, and have been a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, I felt that I was uniquely positioned to speak to CAF work and, to an extent, about how administrative processes work (or don’t) at the faculty and university level.

The questions Chiose posed in our thirty-five minute phone interview were insightful and demonstrated her research and knowledge of higher education in Canada. She knew acronyms like ACCUTE and CAUT, she was more than familiar with the shifting structures of SSHRC, and she was even familiar with some people (CAUT executives who I cited as allies for CAFs) I mentioned. I felt comfortable, I felt heard, and though I knew our interview would be edited down to the best sound bite that popped out of my mouth, I felt unusually prepared.

Then she asked me a question I couldn’t answer.

After discussing my own personal career trajectory on the job market–graduated in 2008 (auspicious…), sessionaled for a year in Calgary, moved to Nova Scotia to hold a 10-month limited term contract as Assistant Professor, had that contract renewed for three more sequential years, and, after the budgets had been cut drastically in the faculty where I worked and my department chair had to raise my class size enormously in order to manage to keep my position, I landed a 12-month contract at a smaller school. I was encouraged to take it, and I did. You likely know this story. That 12-month contract did not get renewed, and I am still not ready or able to tell that story in full in print. I’m still on the job market. I still feel like being frank can be risky–anyhow. After all of this, after noting that I was indeed SSHRC-funded, that I did my PhD in just under four years, that I have kept up a record of publication, Chiose said, “It sounds like you did everything right. So what do you think happened? Is there no longer a formula?”


I remember when I was finishing my degree that there were two trajectories I was encouraged to explore: the post doctoral fellowship or the limited term contract. I think, if I had finished a year or two prior, I would only have been really encouraged to pursue a postdoc, but again let me remind you: 2008. I also recall that when I finished my PhD having an article or two and a few book reviews under your belt was really quite good. Many of my peers were encouraged not to publish, to save their energies until they finished their degrees, and to hold back that material for The Book. I went to a lot of conferences, many of my peers didn’t due not only to funding issues, but to suggestions that they focus their energies elsewhere. I’ve talked to colleagues who finished around the same time as I did at different institutions and they describe similar experiences.

But as we know, much has changed. And yet, looking at my friends and colleagues who have landed tenure track positions, I can’t say with confidence that there is a formula any more, if there ever really was one in the first place. Having The Book, having teaching experience, having grants, having scads of publications, no discernible combination of these things leads to stability and employment.

As austerity in higher education tightens its grip the one common denominator I have observed in my job-seeking peers is paranoia and exhaustion. Nothing is good enough, so you have to do everything. Or maybe not, because sometimes the candidate who appears to have the least experience is the most financially attractive to the hiring administration. So what do you do? Most of the time, you hedge your bets and work yourself and your emotions into the ground. Oh yeah, and you’re scared. Scared to speak up, scared to say no, scared to talk publicly about the material realities of your working conditions because hey, you might not get rehired. Believe me, you really might not.

Did I say all this to the journalist? Yes, I did, or at least I tried. What I have found myself thinking about in the weeks since that interview, as several things I have written have–miraculously!–reached a wider audience than usual, is this: we contract academic faculty need to be better at clearly articulating our own experiences. And yet, there is risk. And so you, tenured faculty, need to be more attentive in your listening, in your solidarity, in your ability via tenure to navigate the incredibly labyrinthine and shifting space of the institution. I don’t know if grassroots organizing will change “things” for contract academic faculty, but I do know we cannot do it in isolation. We need to articulate our terms and those terms differ from one department and faculty and institution to another.

So I’ll leave you with a question, readers, and it is the same one that the journalist asked me: is there a formula anymore? Was there ever? And should there be–can there be?–again?

administration · emotional labour · gradschool · guest post · ideas for change · politics · solidarity · strike

Striking across Borders

Striking is in the air, dear feminists. As I write this, my partner David Klassen sits with his fellow NYU AWDU bargaining committee members in a room with the notoriously pernicious and overpaid NYU Board of Trustees, negotiating for a fair contract for graduate student workers. If they don’t come to an agreement tonight (update: THEY DID!), strike action is planned for the rest of the week, joining our picketing friends across the border at York at the University of Toronto. The meeting stands as the culmination of over a year of other meetings and negotiations and protests and demonstrations since they resumed their status as the only private school in America with a graduate student union, and I have watched from afar as my partner has volunteered his time and physical and mental energy to fighting for this cause–doing so, ironically enough, without pay, dedicating time to collective action that he could be spending on his dissertation. Notably, four out of the five members of the reform caucus (AWDU: Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) are female. I have no doubt that they are similarly dedicated and fantastic, and probably similarly exhausted. 

One of the most compelling recent developments is the swelling of support from undergraduates, over 500 of whom have signed a petition which, amongst other things, avers that “[g]raduate student working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions,” because “[g]raduate students teach our sections, grade our papers and exams, answer our emails late at night, and support our academic growth.” Uh, sob! Rarely do we see such bonds formed between undergraduate and graduate students. An impressive number of undergraduate and graduate allies gathered earlier for a sit-in outside the meeting, demonstrating support and solidarity, and forming a gauntlet as the admin officials entered.

Since it seems as though there’s a growing climate of change and protest against precarious working conditions in academia which is spreading across many former divisions and borders these days–including #NAWD two weeks ago–I wanted to set the actions in Canada and the States in conversation with each other a little more intentionally. I’m not qualified to discuss the U of T/York strikes; however, I got in touch with my friend Norman Mack, a doctoral student in the English Department at U of T, and he was generous enough to type out some answers to my questions. The following is lightly amended from our online exchange: 

Photo: Norman Mack

Q. How (if at all) has the strike brought the student body together?

NM: Solidarity and camaraderie have never been stronger than with this strike. From the strike vote last November on (which saw a record turnout and record yes votes in favour of the strike), there has been a widespread concern over the state of the funding package, and its depreciation over the years since it was last negotiated in 2009 (the year of the last increase in the minimum funding package from $13,500 to the present value of $15,000).

On the picket lines (in this I can only speak from my own experience), there has been as much support from the undergraduate community as here have been uninterestedness and hostilities. I get the sense, however, that support from undergraduates is increasing judging by social media and the students who are everywhere reported to be approaching us expressing sympathies. This increasing support is likely in large part due to the Administration’s tactics thus far: their misrepresentation of facts and the insistence that, despite a work stoppage that’s disrupting classes for thousands of students, the university can function normally.

Furthermore, because of the high number of CUPE3902 members showing up for picket duty and marches, the most varied bonds and conversations are occurring across the many faculties at the university and across the three campuses, particularly on social media, which otherwise might never manifest. There is undoubtedly a community forming, all determined to attain significant gains through the strike.

Q. How do you balance striking action alongside all your other demanding work as a graduate student? 

NM: Again, I can speak only for myself and perhaps those in my particular situation in my department (English): the problem of balance has not been easy. Unlike York University, which has also been on strike since [last] Tuesday, the University of Toronto has decided to continue with classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For graduate students like myself, who are taking a full course load, the combination of picketing for upwards of 20 hours a week (along with other strike-related activities) and keeping up with course work has been incredibly taxing. This is not to say that others, who are either preparing for candidacy exams or writing/researching for their dissertations, have it easier. Many have expressed how exhausting this last week has been, particularly as the weather has not been kind, reaching upwards of -24 degrees with either snow or freezing rain. And yet, there remains a strong sense of commitment to the strike, particularly those in the humanities, those in other words who both stand the most precarious, the most at risk.

Q. Do you believe that collective action will benefit your graduate education (even if you don’t get the results you desire)? 

NM: As I’ve mentioned above, I believe that strong ties are forming both internal and external to those represented by CUPE3902. As I write this, more and more open letters of support are emerging from both faculty and students. (For a particularly strong version of this, see an open letter by Dr. Paul Downes, Dept. of English) If the new buzzword of the university today is interdisciplinarity and collaboration, there has been no better example of these practices than those in the strike I have witnessed thusfar.

Of course, the goal is ultimately to raise the standard of living for the most precarious of our ranks: those who are living on $15,000 a year in a city where the cost of living has skyrocketed since our last increase; those who are finding themselves past the funded cohort trying to finish their dissertations while making ends meet with low-paying TAships or Instructorships, and in some cases part-time or full-time work outside the academy, while also paying some of the highest tuition in Canada ($8,500/year in my department). Many of us are in this fight with much on the line. It was not an easy choice, but it was a necessary one. And we intend to win.

Photo: Norman Mack

HUGE thanks to Norman for answering these questions so thoughtfully, expertly, and thoroughly. We at H&E extend you and your comrades our warmest wishes of solidarity and support as you continue the fight. May NYU’s victory give you hope!

This post has been edited to correct an error in the original: I had said that 7/8 bargaining committee members are women, but in fact there are two other men.

solidarity · women

Every Day Should Be #IWD

Despite the fact that yesterday–March 8th–was technically International Women’s Day, I want to take today to acknowledge it here on Hook & Eye. 

I am tempted to say something like this: what a year it has been for reminding us not only of the accomplishments women have made, but, more so, of the work left to be done. And this is true, especially insofar as the litany of media attention in the past year has highlighted some of the pernicious ways that sexism, misogyny, rape culture, and racism continue to harm women–and thereby harm the world.

But I find that I chafe a bit against the framing “whoa, this year has been a doozy.”

Why? Well, for one thing, focusing only on the stories that made mainstream news further shadows the ongoing inequity for women of colour, poor women, trans*people, and other marginalized subjects.

Do you see what I mean? My seemingly simple desire for a pithy writing hook “hey! Look how hard this year was on women!” might well mean that we think of this important story, and this one, and hey, this and this. We may not think of this story, or this story, or this one though. We may fail to remember that Indigenous women and allies have been fighting for a national inquiry into the hundreds of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women in this country.

Let’s not forget. Let’s be vigilant. Let us work to shine a light on our own myopia and those in the mainstream media, in political agendas, and in academic governance. Let’s continue to reimagine feminism as Harsha Walia does so inspiringly here. Let’s listen to Sara Ahmed when she says self-care is warfare, meaning it is a radical form of political action.

Let’s also remember to publicly celebrate the women and women-identified people in our orbits that are inspiring, who do the work, who strive to maintain their humanity in the midst of it all, and who inspire it in us.

Okay, I’ll start: my co-bloggers Aimée Morrison, Melissa Dalgleish, Margrit Talpalaru, Boyda Johnstone, Jana Smith Elford, Lily Cho. Mentors Susan Bennett, Heather Zwicker, Kirsten Pullen, Smaro Kamboureli, Nathialie Cooke, Christy Luckyj, Marjorie Stone, the CWILA board and editorial teams Libe Garcia Zarranz, Marie Carrière, Clelie Rich, Sheila Giffen, Leigh Nash, Judith Scholes, Gillian Jerome, Laura Moss, Linda Morra, Sina Queyras, Shannon Webb-Campbell, Sachiko Murakami, a.rawlings, El Jones, Heather Jessup, Heather Latimer, Astrid Levert, Tanis MacDonald, Karina Vernon, Natalie Walshots, Carrie Dawson, Lynnette Hunter, Tasha Hubbard, Dory Nason, Tina Northrup, Trish Salah, Lucia Lorenzi, Kelly Shindler.

There are more. So many more. But for now, you add your own in the list. And re-watch this Le Tigre video.

academic reorganization · adjuncts · after the LTA · DIY · solidarity

Dear Contract Academic Faculty,

I see you.

No no, don’t worry, I’m precariously employed too, so my seeing you won’t change your employment.   I can’t do anything for you, though I would if I could. You don’t need to look like you’re working any harder than you already are just because I am looking in your direction. But know this: I see you. And you matter.

I see you, prepping for your classes every night until midnight (or later). I know you’re teaching more than regular faculty, because that’s how contracts work at your institution. I know you have six or more classes per year and that not a one of them is a repeat. And I know you’re working to make the lectures good, the material innovative and inspiring, and the discussions life-altering even though you’re struggling to get the reading done and the assignments graded.

I see you, teaching a class at this campus, and getting in your car or on public transit or in a carpool to make it across town/ across the city/ into the valley/ into another city/ to the next campus in time to teach the next group of students. And I see you try and smile when you do it.

I see you, trying to jam research into the corners of your life that aren’t filled with prep for class.

I see you, not producing research, because there’s no time, or no money, or the very real understanding that maybe, just maybe, there’s no point.

I see you, taking on the book reviews, the peer reviews, the jury duties. And yes, I get it. I do it too, because it feels good to be asked. Because it feels good to participate in the profession. Because it can go on the CV. Because it means someone else sees you too. And yes, I know that you likely kick yourself for saying yes at least some of the time, because isn’t that feeding the imbalanced system? But I see you, because you care about the material. Because community. Because CV.

I see you, carrying your students’s assignments in your bag because you have no office/ share an office/ would rather meet in the library than try to schedule time at your shared desk.

I see your students call you “Miss” or by your first name even though you’ve asked to be called by your professional title.

I see those teaching evaluations–the quiet devastation they can bring–either by being better than the department average, or worse.

I see you, writing reference letters for students applying to for study abroad programs, to be residence dons, to get into graduate programs, for colleagues going up for tenure and promotion, and I know: it might be hard to figure out where to print the letters, because I know you don’t have access to photocopiers, scanners, printers, or, heck, hard copy letter head. Not all the time. Likely not after hours when you can do this work.

I see you, meeting with students on your own time or in office hours to talk about their plans for graduate school. I see you waffle, because you still care, because you believe in the work you do even though you’re being shut out, made provisional, living precariously. I see you do it anyway, and do it well.

I see you say no. I know what it costs you, that small action of agency, that protection of your time. I know that “no” is meant to be a proactive word for you, and I know the second-third-and-fourth guessing that accompanies every decision to use it.

I see you, applying for your own position. And I see you not get it, sometimes.

I see you, applying for postdoctoral fellowships, for grants, and asking for adjunct status if that grant is successful. I see you working extra, because the grant means you can do the work you love, and because the grant would mean that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got some leverage (but not a living wage). I see you wobble, because a successful grant may not end up meaning shit.

I see you, competing against your peers, your friends, your acquaintances for the one or two jobs in your area. I see you, writing those letters of application cringing at the lack of research, or, conversely, wondering if this time your well-rounded application will make it to the top. Or, if it matters, because maybe there is another contract academic faculty member who is the inside candidate, and it doesn’t matter. I see your frustration, and I want to say: it’s ok. We all want to be the inside candidate, even though we know that doesn’t always work out either.

I see the unfairness in the labyrinthine system in which we labour–or try to labour.

I see that you’re tired. I see that you’re trying. I see you, working so hard to be able to work.

You have more agency than you think, though its hard to think when you’re so busy or heartsick.

I see that these thoughts break your heart, and I see you wonder if it shows, if other people notice that you do still carry that little spark of hope that things will change.

Things will change, though they may not look they way you thought they would. We need to leave. And we need to stay, but under different working conditions. We need to organize ourselves, despite the extra work that requires. We can do it. We’re resourceful. We care. We can draw on the will and support of tenured colleagues and on organizations such as ACCUTE and CAUT and we can do something, though it won’t happen quickly. And, we can choose not to, we can choose to leave. And that is not a failure either.

But for now, dear CAF, know this: I see you. I care about you. I can’t fix anything for you by myself, but know that you’re not alone.



Ps. Thanks to Lily for the love letter inspiration.

fast feminism · politics · slow academy · social media · solidarity

Queer Feminism?

We on this blog don’t often discuss LGBTQ issues (perhaps because we all happen to present as straight), and today I’d like to think about some of the implications of conscientiously adopting a more “queer” feminism: one that is, perhaps, more explicitly open to alternative lifestyles, more open-ended, less harmonious, more agonistic. Feminists who remain silent on LGBTQ issues risk reinforcing a perceived divide between feminism and queer studies that limits our possibilities for collective change. The rift, however simplistically conceived, between “frumpy, sex-phobic feminists” and their “kinky, stylish queer cousins” (6) is an issue that Lynne Huffer addresses and in some ironic sense attempts to ‘resolve’ in her 2013 book Are Our Lips a Grave?: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex.  While she acknowledges that the opposition is clearly facile, it is the case that some amongst the queer community perceive feminists disparagingly as “convergentist,” attempting to “coalesce under one feminist umbrella an array of positions that complicate gender as a single category of analyses” (7); queer activists, on the other hand, tend toward “divergentism,” dedicated to rupture, to discontinuity, to the antisocial (even as I write this, these binary claims don’t ring entirely true). Huffer yearns for and endeavours to make possible through her book a feminism that is “only convergentist in a contestatory, rift-restoring sense,” a “ruptured convergence” that calls upon divergent positions to clash and clang together, to hang out together in shared spaces without necessarily coming to some sort of enforced consensus (8). Huffer wants women to tell stories that sit in uncomfortable relation to one another.

At least one of the things Huffer is enjoining us to remember, what queer feminism might bring to our feminisms and to our blog, is that although it is important to maintain common goals, this does not mean we always have to agree, always encourage each other, always enact the socialized impulse towards unconditional support and smiling and deference and happiness that is generally expected of us. I have to say I get a little sick at the nurturing impulse I witness (mostly between women) in academia–we have the tendency to tell each other things are okay, to hug, to support each other unconditionally, to celebrate with each other, and sometimes the whole goddamn lovefestness of it all gets to me. Maybe I’m just a hardened grumpycat New Yorker (impostering on a Canadian blog!). But I yearn for more disagreements, more stories that unsettle us and challenge us, more world-shaking opinions and perspectives that do not easily accord with our own received paradigms regarding what feminism is and can be.

Huffer locates this kind of “ruptured convergence” in close-reading and storytelling (72), which enable the emergence of specificity and disallow others from becoming versions of the same, mere reflections of ourselves: narrative performance becomes

an intersubjective model that, paradoxically, undoes the subject, [enlarging] the transformative potential of interpretation, where speaking subject, reader, and discursive traces themselves remain linked but porous, interdependent, and open to change. (72)

 Linked porosity. Collective undoing.  Huffer calls this an “ethics of bounded alterity” (72).

This week, after Rolling Stone published the horrifying UVA gang-rape story to which I am certainly not linking, Professor Bruce Holsinger (@bruceholsinger) began taking screenshots and tweeting some of the comments that appeared at the bottom of the article, raising more awareness of voices that might otherwise be overlooked. Although I’m not positive if this can be categorized as “queer feminism,” I think this is one possibility for the sort of activism we can practice.


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsAnother recent excellent example of speaking out and creating rifts in a possibly convergentist manner is Dorothy Kim’s post on sexual harrassment in the academy, which sprung from an extended conversation on the Facebook wall of well-known medievalist Alexandra Gillespie (University of Toronto). In her Facebook thread–which responds to the Ghomeshi case and is still public if you are interested in spending an hour feeling increasingly hopeless about the state of the academy–dozens of female academics described instances of harassment involving (more) senior male scholars, speaking to “a long and persistent history of sexual harassment in medieval studies spaces,” as Kim puts it. And of course there’s #beenrapedneverreported and all of Erin’s understandable questioning of the appropriateness of social media for issues of restorative justice.

a long, persistent history of sexual harassment in medieval studies spaces – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2014/10/medieval-studies-sexual-harassment-and.html#sthash.HffR5eHx.dpuf,

Is this queer feminism? What does queer feminism look like? Really, I don’t know, and to be honest, this post has been extremely hard to write. I guess I’m mostly just opening up questions, as many of our blogs in this limited realm of the digital universe tend to do. Challenges to my [underdeveloped] reading of Huffer or thoughts on queer feminism are welcome in the comment section below. How do we open spaces for more diverse and intersectional voices, more uncomfortably convergent stories and perspectives? Let’s keep trying. For my next post, I will describe my recent experience with an LGBT Ally training course at Fordham, which will hopefully provide more possible answers to such questions.

emotional labour · notes from the non-tenured-stream · solidarity

13 – 5

Semesters are short here in Canada. Usually, the winter term clocks in around thirteen weeks if you count reading week. When you think about it that is not a lot of classroom time. This semester I was teaching the lightest load I have ever had: two classes with a total of about fifty students. I also had an independent study course with one honours student which met once a week for two hours. Still, compared to the times I have taught four classes and had a few hundred students this workload was a breeze… Sort of.

The 13-5 that makes up the title reflects the actual time I had with my students this semester. Thirteen weeks minus three weeks on strike, minus another week for a long-scheduled trip, minus a fifth for reading week, which was not cancelled at Mount Allison. Now I’m no math genius, but 13-5= not a whole lot of time. Eight weeks, to be exact. Eight weeks to teach one second year class their required literary periods course (Romantic, Victorian, Modernism, Post-Modernism), and the same eight weeks to teach a third year course on literature by women in English in the 20th and 21st centuries. Throw into the mix some unavoidable mid-semester travel (read: interviews) and that makes for one truncated term.

It’s an unofficial tradition here at Hook & Eye to reflect on the end of the semester, and especially the end of the teaching year. Look back through the archives and you’ll find posts on the post-semester tristesse that engulfs many of us, you’ll see best laid plans for summer research and renewal, and you’ll find that many of us are getting ready for the spate of conferences that come at the end of May. This year I find myself in a reflective mood, and one that is markedly different than previous years. For one thing, I’ve been on strike before. Without going into the particularities of negotiations which are ongoing I can say this: it was much harder than I expected. It was hard because the tensions did rise. It was hard because Sackville is a wee town, and there is no where to escape from something that consumes those affiliated with the university. It was hard because the students were stressed and I care about them. It was hard because my colleagues and I were stressed and standing up for something we felt was vital and necessary (hint: our was not a strike about pay raises, it was a strike over the core values of the academic mission). It was also hard because at the end of the job action–we are still in interest arbitration and will be for months–we all went back into the classrooms and tried to deliver the strongest classes possible.

It was a challenge to regain the momentum, but it wasn’t impossible. In both my classes the students and I made a pact be be kind to one another. This meant I revoked the syllabus to drop some assignments, give them the chance to weigh in on the evaluation process, and everyone got more time to do the work that remained. Translation: I’m usually draconian about deadlines (unless there is a legitimate issue, obviously) and that went out the window. It wasn’t useful for me or the classes to have strict deadlines when the students were cramming ten weeks of class into five. We made a deal to communicate about when things would come in on an individual basis, and we stuck to it. I will be grading until the last days of the month, and that’s fine. The smallness of my classes allowed me to keep tabs on every student’s process, and they, in turn, we’re kind to me when I kept getting confused about deadlines as well. We laughed, and we are getting through it.

My reflections on the semester are these: things happen that are out of your control. Communication and being human with my students really worked for me as a means of managing my stress and expectations as well as theirs. For instance, for the first time I told students I was missing class (and they were having a guest lecture) because I had to go to a campus interview. I needed them to know why I was absent after the huge gap from the strike and reading week. They were understanding, and in turn forthright about their own challenges and constraints. We were able, too, to use the strike and the material conditions of my contract to talk about university governance and structures of labour in the academy. And yes, we did some amazing with with literature as well.

It feels strange to be at the end of another school year. I am as tired, but in different ways. I am as unclear about future work, but again, in different ways. The constant thing is this: I am as grateful for the privilege of being in the front of the classroom as ever. In the midst of grading, or the inevitable student apathy I am reminded of the incredible responsibility and privilege to stand in a room of people and teach and think together. We may have lost five weeks, but I know we got real and important work accomplished.

emotional labour · history · solidarity


This is not an Oscars post.

Yes, I think it is great that Cate Blanchett spoke about the importance of films that centre on women. Yes, I’m thrilled that Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress. But I don’t have anything smart and insightful to say about the Oscars. Not this year.

My mind is still with last week’s news.

In case you haven’t heard, last week the family, friends, and community members of Loretta Saunders learned that she had indeed been murdered. Loretta was an Inuk woman from Labrador. She was studying at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. I have mostly learned about Loretta through the excruciating writing by her thesis supervisor, Dr. Darryl Leroux. After Loretta went missing on February 13th her family alerted police and community members in Halifax began postering. Leroux wrote a mediation on Loretta’s thesis work specifically, and more generally on the incredible urgency of her work more generally. You can read it here.

Last week Loretta’s body was found in the median of the TransCanada Highway in New Brunswick.

Leroux managed to write another incredible and excruciating post about Loretta and her work shortly after her body was found on February 26th. You can read it in full here. She was writing an honours thesis on the pernicious erasure of Indigenous women in Canada. She was writing about the murder of Aboriginal women in Canada. She was writing about the ways in which Canada is structured to not only marginalize Indigenous peoples, it is also structured to fundamentally teach non-Indigenous subjects to simply not see this day-to-day violence.

I am devastated and I am angry. You should be too. We all should be in Ottawa with Cheryl Maloney and the rest of the Native Women’s Association demanding an immediate and full-scale inquiry into this country’s repugnant treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Why has this not happened already? Leroux articulates his thoughts beautifully, so I’ll cite him here:

What I do know is that our society has discarded indigenous women and girls in much the same manner for generations. These people were playing out a script that we all know intimately, but never acknowledge.

It’s our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing — theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession = social chaos.

It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?

All the while, through trickery and deceit, we convince our children that indigenous peoples are to blame for their condition, that through no fault of our own, they simply don’t understand how to live well in society.

When I discuss these issues with my non-indigenous students in an open, honest, and non-judgmental manner, I am continuously disappointed, though no longer surprised by their lack of knowledge.

His experience with his non-Indigenous students matches mine. And, as Tara Williamson writes on the Indigenous Nations Rising site, don’t be tricked. This violence against Indigenous subjects and culture in Canada is not going to change with a tweet or a post or a ribbon or a hashtag or a comment on someone’s Facebook page. As she writes: 

Independent acts of activism are useless when they are not grounded in community and contextualized by a broader goal of dismantling colonial state power.

Nothing short of consistent activism that is predicated on learning the history and contexts of this ongoing colonial violence, learning solidarity, learning how to be an ally if you are non-Indigenous, and focussing on the long-term and broader goals of dismantling colonial power will make the change that must happen.

academic work · emotional labour · solidarity

Walking the Line Week 3: Emotional Labour

Two weeks ago as I prepared to head out to my first shift at strike headquarters my partner told me that Pete Seeger had died. It seemed both an ominous and, strangely, also auspicious coincidence. Celebrity death is a bizarre thing to negotiate. There is, on the one hand, a sense of the loss of someone familiar. On the other hand, there is a simultaneous awareness of distance: most of us don’t know the celebrity who has died. For me, the loss of an activist who has inspired me amplifies these paradoxical feelings. Three weeks ago I walked to strike headquarters thinking not just of Pete Seeger, but of Emma Goldman, of Woody Guthrie, of the many people who have spoken up bravely and unwaveringly for fair working conditions and human rights.

In the second week of the strike as I headed out to my first shift on the line I was thinking about the contradictions of being a contract labourer on strike. My resolve was strong, but the things I couldn’t say — the criticisms and close readings I would normally perform here simply didn’t feel safe. In the past four years I have continually circled back to the paradoxes of writing a blog as a contract labourer. I initially (naively) felt that I could write posts explaining the complications of being a contract labourer. I’ve tried to do that, but let me tell you: as someone still on the job market there is so much that I can’t actually write about. Yet. Honestly, it is exhausting and infuriating.

We are now into week three of the strike here at Mount Allison, and while my resolve hasn’t been shaken I am feeling tired. I am not simply tired from the strangeness that comes of interrupting a rigorous routine of teaching, researching, and applying for jobs. I am tired from the unavoidable emotional labour of being on strike. Two years ago Aimee described emotional labour as the invisible work that we do when we teach students not only to master writing and communication skills, but also to develop social savvy through historical awareness, self-reflexivity, and creative critical thinking. I would add to that definition that emotional labour includes the time spent in office hours, on email, or doing just about anything while thinking through a problem that a student has brought to you. Emotional labour includes taking the time to think through how to address justifiable student frustration, anxiety, anger, and misunderstanding in the classroom and, as is the case here in Sackville, when the classroom gets temporarily closed in order to work towards sustainable working and learning conditions. For me and my colleagues here emotional labour will eventually involve not simply figuring out how to productively and ethically salvage a semester, it will also involve choosing how to take the time to address students’s questions about job action even as we ourselves may be working to understand the ins and outs of a strike. When we talk about the academic mission — itself an overdetermined and under-defined phrase — I think about the necessary fusion of emotional labour and critical praxis. We, each of us, teach the histories, contexts, methods, and practices of our disciplines. We also have the responsibility to model and carry out the undervalued but absolutely necessary critical and affective work of emotional labour.

This morning, as I headed out for my second week of 8am picket shifts my partner told me that Stuart Hall has died. Another incalculable loss, I thought. Yet, while Hall has left us he has also left us with his words, which I will borrow now:

                      “The university is a critical institution, or it is nothing.”

I trust my students. I trust that they are developing the critical reading and thinking skills I work to model for them. I trust that they can take Hall’s statement and put it to work as they continue to do their own difficult emotional work of navigating what is happening here, and I know that when I meet them back in the classroom even though we will all be tired I will be ready to do that emotional work with them.


Walking the Line Week 2: Contradictions of Contract Labour

When I completed my PhD in 2009 there were certain things I didn’t anticipate having to deal with, and a strike is one of them. (Of course, that may have been because I went to school in Alberta where one now risks punishment if you utter the word “strike”) I was far more concerned about finding sessional work in a boom town in the first fall of the recession. I landed my first contract position in the spring of that year and for the first time became a member of a faculty union. I had very little idea what that meant. In fact, I took the advice of a mentor and sat down to read the entire collective agreement. Let me tell you: it was worth the time.

Today is Day 8 in the second week of the strike at Mount Allison. The faculty and librarians have walked the picket lines in subzero temperatures. Most contract faculty, myself included, have been given strike duty at headquarters. The thinking here is that many of us are on the job market. Indeed, some of us are in the process of applying for positions at this university. Working inside keeps the most of the precariates out of the spotlight. I appreciate the thoughtfulness that has gone into this scheduling.

And yet, there’s no protecting precariates when the union is on strike. Not really. We are both in the union and one of the very issues on the table at negotiations. Some of the central issues my union is striking over have to do with attempting to get living wages for sessional workers. It is impossible not to be in a contradictory position as a contract laborer on strike. Do you keep a low profile? What does that mean? Do I stop writing blog posts about academic issues that are currently affecting me? Or not?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor do I have a clear path for navigating the ever-increasing complications of contract labour. But today I made a decision for myself. It was a small one and of little consequence, but it matters to me. Today I did my first picket line duty outside. I walked the line with my colleagues (not all tenured or tenure-track) from faculties and departments I may never otherwise have met. We talked about the strike. We talked about our lives. We had an incredible interdisciplinary conversation about rape culture on campuses, how to talk about it in the classroom, and how to combat it in daily life. It felt good to meet these people. I learned things from them and was reminded yet again of the vital kinds of work university professors do everyday. 

I support the union. I depend on the union to stand up for my rights and the rights of others. Would I rather be in the classroom? Of course I would. So would everyone. But faculty and librarians are on strike because they are fighting for the academic mission. So here are my final (brief) thoughts from the picket lines: being on strike is hard on faculty. It is hard on the students. And as someone working very hard to gain a more stable foothold in the academy it feels both risky and necessary.